This Opinion first appeared in the New York Times' Sunday Review section on January 21, 2012
Saudi Arabia’s economic planners recognize that if women are going to be educated at public expense, as they now are in increasing numbers, they will expect to work and the country will need their economic output. Society has increasingly accepted the idea that women will work outside the home. They have long been employed in medicine and education. Retail commerce, however, has generally remained closed because such work usually requires interaction with men, which is prohibited. The lingerie shops are breaking that taboo.
One of the oddest sights in Saudi Arabia is that of fully veiled women, hidden from others by their enveloping garments, going into the Saudi equivalent of Victoria’s Secret stores in the many upscale malls and being greeted and assisted exclusively by male sales clerks, most of whom are from South Asia. This absurd situation so embarrassed many women that they waited until they were out of the country to buy their underwear and nightgowns.
The campaign to change the rules began several years ago, and was led by Reem Asaad, a fashion-conscious financial adviser who speaks flawless English and is comfortable with the Western media. It appeared to have succeeded in 2006 when the government ordered that the sales jobs be transferred to women. But social conservatives and the religious establishment objected, arguing that Islam prohibited women from working outside the home and that putting women in retail shops would expose them to the view of any passing stranger. If the sales clerks were female, the shop windows would have to be covered, the opponents said.
Shop owners objected, too, saying that no women were trained to do such work. In addition, the 2006 decree failed to address the transportation problem: if women were going to work in those shops, they would need a man to drive them because they are prohibited from driving. Saudi cities have virtually no public transportation. So the decree was never enforced. Ms. Asaad then used Facebook to organize a boycott of the shops, and arranged for some women to be trained in retail work.
This time, King Abdullah has put his personal authority behind the new decree. Last year he also installed a new minister of labor, Adel Fakieh, who had embraced the idea of employing women at a supermarket chain owned by his holding company. Under the new rules, the country’s thousands of lingerie and cosmetics shops have until June to replace their male employees with women. The feared religious police, who are really the behavior police, have been ordered to cooperate.
King Abdullah generally supported an expansion of opportunities for women, but steps in this direction can’t be traced to any burst of enlightenment within the royal family. They are happening because the kingdom’s women need and want jobs and are learning how to make themselves heard — and because, in an increasingly expensive country, their husbands often want them to work.
Over the coming generation, this is likely to be the farthest-reaching transformation in Saudi society. While women are still constrained by law, religion and custom, more and more are likely to enter the work force. They will be better educated than their predecessors, will marry later and will have fewer children. The range of jobs and professions open to them will expand. The Ministry of Labor is already compiling a list of jobs women will be permitted to hold. It won’t include all jobs — no female miners or construction workers here — but it will be a much longer list than in the past, including some positions in law enforcement.
These changes will meet entrenched opposition, but the economic and demographic forces behind them seem irresistible. The transition would be easier if women were permitted to drive (the 2011 decree failed to address that issue), but that is bound to come, too — if not this year, then soon, if only because growing ranks of employed women will build pressure for it. Thousands of Saudi women have driver’s licenses issued by other countries; they will be ready when the day comes.